Discovering that Jhumpa Lahiri was this past week’s “By the Book” interviewee in The New York Times Book Review was a delight. But discovering within the Q&A what Lahiri thinks about “immigrant fiction” was, I confess, something of a disappointment.
In case you haven’t yet read the column, Lahiri was asked, “What immigrant fiction has been the most important to you, both personally and as an inspiration for your own writing?” Her answer:
I don’t know what to make of the term “immigrant fiction.” Writers have always tended to write about the worlds they come from. And it just so happens that many writers originate from different parts of the world than the ones they end up living in, either by choice or by necessity or by circumstance, and therefore, write about those experiences. If certain books are to be termed immigrant fiction, what do we call the rest? Native fiction? Puritan fiction? This distinction doesn’t agree with me. Given the history of the United States, all American fiction could be classified as immigrant fiction. Hawthorne writes about immigrants. So does Willa Cather. From the beginnings of literature, poets and writers have based their narratives on crossing borders, on wandering, on exile, on encounters beyond the familiar. The stranger is an archetype in epic poetry, in novels. The tension between alienation and assimilation has always been a basic theme.
Well, yes. And no. Cather’s My Ántonia appealed to me so strongly, on first and subsequent readings, because so much of it is about immigrants. Frankly, the same is true regarding my reception of Lahiri’s work. One of the local literary events I was most disappointed to miss this year was a panel–featuring Christopher Castellani, Ursula Hegi, and Julie Wu–on “the immigrant experience in novels.”
Yes, “many writers” originate from faraway places (or are only a generation or two removed from people who have). But as much as “the tension between alienation and assimilation has always been a basic theme,” it’s not omnipresent. What’s wrong with highlighting stories of immigrant experience? Why does Lahiri object to this perspective?
Reading Lahiri’s “By the Book” response on Sunday, I was reminded of one of my favorite reviews of Quiet Americans. I recall how deeply honored (and overwhelmed) I was when I first saw what the reviewer had written:
Dreifus’s clear, direct style and her subject matter bring to mind the stories of Jhumpa Lahiri. Both writers deal with immigrants to the U.S., the interaction of family generations, and the themes of pregnancy and birth. More than once I was reminded of Ashima in Lahiri’s novel The Namesake and her thoughts on living as a newly-arrived Bengali in America: “For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy—a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect.” Dreifus and Lahiri both explore the out-of-sorts feeling, the interruption of ordinary life by the complications and demands of starting over in a new land, whether by choice or under compulsion. In Quiet Americans, Dreifus has made the extraordinary experiences of her characters accessible to readers who may feel they are far-separated from such events. As a good storyteller should, she shows that the feelings and experiences of the human heart are universal, regardless of the outer circumstances shaping each life.
I remain so grateful for that reviewer’s focus on what might connect my stories and Lahiri’s, and I continue to appreciate that for the reviewer, as for me, much of that connection rests in their shared status as examples of “immigrant fiction.” Even if, it seems, Lahiri might not be equally pleased.